- Mass celebrated at 3.00pm at the Basilica of Our Lady of Knock, Co Mayo, Archdiocese of Tuam
- “Faith means my seeking to follow Christ, not my trying to get God to see things my way. Prayer is about letting Christ change our hearts, not about us trying to twist His arm. Faith is about taking up the Cross, not about trying to escape the crosses.” – Bishop McKeown
This year’s annual pilgrimage in honour of Saint Pio of Pietralcina coincides very closely with two important anniversaries of the saint who ministered for so many years at San Giovanni Rotondo. It was almost exactly 100 years ago on 20 September 1918 that Padre Pio had the first signs of the stigmata. And fifty years ago on 23 September 1968, the saint was called to God after a life of suffering, some rejection and huge dedication to ministry.
The holy man would be glad to point us to the readings that the Church puts before us today. As we see in the Gospel passage, the message of Christ was not easily grasped by his listeners. Even Jesus’ closest disciples were not quite sure who he was. And even when Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ, the Lord did not provide certainty for His followers. The only way to follow Him was not in the retinue of a glorious king but by taking up the Cross and walking with Him.
Saint Pio knew what taking up the Cross meant, and he had to allow the Lord to lead him along strange and unsettling paths. Indeed, it is clear from Saint Mark’s very blunt Gospel passage today that, for Jesus as well, following the Father’s will was difficult, and all the more challenging when Peter tries to undermine the tough message of the Cross. Indeed, we know from the Temptations of Jesus about the Devil’s seductive suggestion that should take the easy path and avoid the Passion. After He had spoken about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, some of His followers left Him because He was using intolerable language. The way of the Cross is tough.
Then as now, accepting uncomfortable truths like the Cross is an integral part of following Jesus. Padre Pio was dedicated to facing the reality of evil and sin as it haunted people’s hearts, bodies and memories. It is interesting that his first experience of the stigmata occurred while he was hearing Confessions. Like Jesus, he suffered and bled because there is no salvation without the Cross. Sin is a terrible evil and only heroic loving suffering can counteract it.
So what might Saint Pio say to us in 2018 Ireland about how to face the pain of evil in our midst?
Firstly, we have to remove the plank from our own eyes and acknowledge the sin in our own hearts and Church before we dash to criticise the splinter in anybody else’s. We have to learn how to repent before we condemn others for where they are. It is a dangerous form of Christianity that believes we have to be a strong and influential organisation giving the lying impression of being pure and perfect. As Pope Francis said a few years ago when asked who he was, we can only answer that we are sinners who trust in the infinite mercy and patience of Christ. Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians that if we want to boast, we can boast of nothing but the Lord. (2 Cor 10:17). Our only boast is that we are forgiven sinners, conscious of our individual and communal past – but never prisoners of it. As the Taoiseach said at Dublin Castle, the Church in Ireland has done many good things. Any denial of that reality is ideologically driven. But we do a huge injustice to Christ, to ourselves and to others if we pretend that the past was not scarred by Original Sin. The temptation to power, to arrogance and to blindness was no less real a hundred years ago than it is now. As the Israelites discovered on their journey from Egypt, the Promised Land is always ahead of us and never behind us.
The forgiveness of Christ, which Saint Pio ministered so powerfully, tells us that we don’t have to defend the errors of the past but rather acknowledge them. We are ministers of Christ’s forgiveness and mercy, not of our virtue. It is idolatrous to worship or to seek to recreate a flawed past. Our job today is not to dream of, or work for a strong Church in the future. Our only mission is to ensure that the Irish Church is fit for purpose in being able to proclaim and incarnate the mercy and love of Jesus into the pain of today. That is what Saint Pio did in his generation. He would ask us to do the same today. He would ask us to love the world as God did in sending Jesus, not to retreat behind big walls and shout angrily at it. Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it (Jn 3:17). Our first task is to be sure that our parishes and dioceses are credible witnesses of Jesus today, people who have known divine forgiveness and who want others to know the joy that it brings.
Secondly, like Jesus we have to speak the uncomfortable truth in love to our contemporaries. Acknowledgment of our failings in the past frees us to comment on where our society is also marked by sin. If we are to be fit for purpose today, we have to gear ourselves up to speak about the awful extent of injustice, self-harm and suicide in our society. We have to have the courage to name evils like homelessness and the epidemic of loneliness. We have to name the awful damage done to young and old by the widespread access to and encouragement of pornography. Britain is a country where doctors decide whether under 16s should access contraceptives or have an abortion without parental consent – but want to consider whether under 16s should be banned from buying caffeinated energy drinks!
But we do all of this, not by focussing our criticism on the victims – as so often happens – but on the strong whose consumerist culture is killing too many of our young people. If you empty of meaning key words such as marriage, gender and love, you remove fundamental reference points for young people who are seeking to discover who they are and what value their life has. Once you replace God and stimulate hunger for self-indulgence, you make the transient wishes and feelings of the adult into the infallible truth, never to be questioned, never to be made to feel uncomfortable about their choices. The power of a strong Church is simply replaced by the power of strong corporations and strong feelings. As in every generation, the little ones are sacrificed on the altar of old and new dogmas. Young people are not dying because Christ calls them to heroism and sanctity. They are dying because they are told to obey their thirst, that life is too short to say no and that life is ultimately full of sound and signifying nothing. Taking up the Cross means playing the role of the uncomfortable prophets – and facing up to the new high priests who want to drown out any opposition or criticism. Systems were scarred by sin in the past. When we recognise our own sin, we are in a position to call out the sinful structures of today. We tell people that God loves them where they are – but loves them too much to leave them where they are!
Thirdly, Saint Pio was a man of intense and prolonged prayer. As Jesus told His disciples, evil can only be cast out by prayer and fasting. Saint James in our second reading today is clear that following Jesus involves doing uncomfortable things. Faith is never mushy sweet piety that makes us feel comfortable – but bears no relationship to the Jesus of the Gospels or to the life of the early Church. Saint Pio knew that Christian spirituality pushes us away beyond our comfort zones. Facing sin and its consequences is possible only for those who have opened themselves up to Christ’s grace through prayer. Faith means my seeking to follow Christ, not my trying to get God to see things my way. Prayer is about letting Christ change our hearts, not about us trying to twist His arm. Faith is about taking up the Cross, not about trying to escape the crosses.
We will not be fit for the mission of speaking Jesus into the reality of modern sin and pain if we are not missionary parish communities of intense and persevering prayer. Christian piety pushes us out to peripheries, tells us to get our hands dirty, tells us to not be afraid of smelling like the sheep, and being scorned like them.
The ministry of Saint Pio took place during years that were scarred by the appalling slaughter of two World Wars. He proclaimed the love of God as the source of all healing – and he bore witness to the Jesus of Calvary for 50 years. The Church of this century is living with other slaughters – of babies before birth and of too many lives cut short after birth. Jesus tells us that evil cannot be overcome except by speaking the truth and carrying the Cross behind Him. Our society is yearning for authentic ministers of the real God. A self-righteous Church can never do that.
At this holy place in Knock, Mary gathers us around the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Christ whom Peter acknowledged in the Gospel. He invites us to be prepared to lose our lives for His sake and for the sake of Gospel. In that mission, we have the aid of today’s saint. Saint Pio of Pietralcina, pray for us so that we, too, can pray, hope and not worry. Amen.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. This homily was delivered yesterday at the Basilica of Our Lady of Knock.
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